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Thoughts on Cheryl Dunye's The Watermelon Woman (1996) | Sam Debatin | Mon 04 Jan 2021 03:18:24 EST

So the history isn't a real history. What is it then? Pure entertainment? Because that doesn't seem quite right either. In fact, The Watermelon Woman walks a fine line between telling a historically relevant story and not telling a history at all. Cheryl Dunye, the films protagonist (and coincidentally, the film's real-life director) tells the story of "the watermelon woman," a film actor from the early twentieth century. The watermelon woman (whose real name was Faeh Richards), turns out to have quite a bit in common with Cheryl — they are both lesbian, they both have relationships with white women, and they both are interested in film. Cheryl tries to dive into the history of this mysterious figure, but ends up running up against countless dead ends. Archives don't want to give her the material she is looking for, and libraries are less than helpful, leading her to seek out personal testimony as her main source of information. After a couple failed attempts and some conflicting information, Cheryl is left at the end with a still incomplete history, full of contradictions and multi-faceted narratives.

This all comes with one caveat though — none of the people or sources exist in real life. While Cheryl is a real person, Faeh Richards never existed, and neither did any of the films she supposedly starred in. To me, this leaves us with a problem: what was the point of telling a history that never happened? Cheryl could have just as well chosen a real actress from the thirties, delved deep into her relations and personal life, and probably come up with a fairly fascinating story to tell. Instead, the real Cheryl Dunye went to the effort of staging over seventy eight historical photographs, developing a background for each of them, and ultimately telling a story about a woman who never existed, all through the lens of a fictional rom-com. Assuming in good faith that this was not done out of laziness or disregard for the truth, why tell such a story?

Partly, the answer is practical. Dunye has said in interviews that they tried to use real archival footage, but were put off by the high price to license such material. And, not only was this material expensive, much of it was missing context and it would have been quite difficult to piece together any kind of meaningful history for the film. And as for what I think may have mostly driven the piece, Dunye had a creative vision, and says so quite blatantly at the end of the film: "sometimes you have to create your own history. The Watermelon Woman is fiction." To me, The Watermelon Woman seems to be less about a single story and more about the difficulty of telling stories. It is near impossible to do historical work on stories and people whose stories have not been told previously. Not only are there barriers in terms of sheer information, but people are unwilling to help, as seen in multiple scenes where Cheryl is treated like a kind of interloper by the white archivists, librarians, and interviewees.

But still, this doesn't tell the whole story either. Watching this now, almost twenty-five years later, the piece is finally what it wanted to be all along — a collection of historical footage. In it, we can not only read the beginnings of New Queer Cinema (this was the first feature film directed by a black, openly lesbian woman), but the political turmoils of the 1990s over explicitly queer and sexual content. The film was later embroiled in a scandal involving the allocation of NEA grant funding, which provided $30,000 to the film's budget. The lesbian sex scene, although not particularly graphic, caught the attention of conservative politicians and pundits, and sparked a controversy over use of taxpayer money to fund what some lawmakers called "pornographic" content. Ironically, this is exactly the kind of escapade that The Watermelon Woman was looking to do research on. Conservatives and establishment figures did everything in their power to try to drown out the voices that were trying to make themselves heard through this film. Dunye has said herself that she often felt like she was being treated like the Watermelon Woman, a faceless, nameless entity in cinema whose only role is to serve as material for the structures of patriarchy and white supremacy to talk down upon. Fortunately, we do know who Dunye is, and we have quite a bit of material to work with to tell her story, as well as the stories of countless other queer and non-white film makers. In this way, Dunye has achieved her goal: to tell a story of a lesbian woman in film who would have otherwise been pushed aside to the sands of hegemony.